Photo by Cottonbro at Pexels
Modern yoga is a holistic practice, the origins of which can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation, which existed over 5,000 year ago in the north-western region of South Asia. Yoga has been practiced in India continuously since that time, in many and various forms. The colonisation of India, which lasted for over 300 years, had a great detrimental effect of the development of yoga. Many Yoga and Ayurvedic schools were banned, as yogis proved to be amazing strategists and activists, and thus a threat to the colonial regime. Ultimately, it was one of the central yogic texts, the Bhagavad Gita, that inspired Gandhi to use the yogic principles of non-violence ahimsa, and truth satya to gain independence in 1947.
The Growth of the Yoga Industry
The fascinating story of how Yoga came to the West is a story I will cover in another article. Since 1843, when Swami Vivekananda introduced yogic ideas to the US, the interest in yoga in the West has grown exponentially. By 1950s there were yoga associations and schools the world over. Since this time, yoga has become an industry. Large studios, fancy retreats, yoga clothing and equipment all bring in an enormous amount of revenue — worldwide over $130 billion to be precise.
Appropriation of Yoga Practices
The appropriation of yoga practices by the modern yoga industry is problematic in general, and can be especially offensive to people of South Indian origin. This type of corporate yoga is portrayed and marketed as exclusive. The effect of this is that it excludes many people from feeling like they would be welcome or comfortable in many yoga spaces. This discomfort is especially felt by some people from South Asia, where yoga originated.
Centring The Dominant Cultural Norms
A cursory look at a yoga magazine, an advert for a yoga retreat or the imagery used to portray yoga on the internet will reveal that yoga is centred around serving a particular type of person. The young, white, affluent, slim woman. This messaging puts off many people who don’t fit this picture due to ethnicity, gender, body size, health concerns, feeling not flexible enough etc etc. I’ve noticed this for many years and have often wondered “why does yoga have to be portrayed in this way?”
Why has this practice, that originated in the forests, caves and community kulas of South Asia, become so corporate and white? So skinny and aspirational? So squeaky clean and competitive?
Corporatisation of Yoga
A simple reason, and there are a number of complex historical ones, is that yoga has been corporatised in the West. Yoga companies in the Yoga Industry have prioritised making money over nurturing, inspiring and supporting a broader population of humanity. Instead, yoga companies centre only those people who can afford the high cost of their products (£100 for a yoga mat anyone?).
Sharing Power Rather than Charitable Efforts
Although yoga corporations might donate to charity, or even establish charities of their own, there is an unwillingness share resources and power equally within their organisations. It is very rare for such companies and studios to centre marginalised voices (even South Asian voices). A token person of colour on the board, or on the teaching schedule, does not really address these issues with any depth. And it is not only BAME people who are excluded, many marginalised groups are poorly represented within the corporate yoga world.
Affordable For Who?
Around 15 years ago I asked a teacher working in a large studio about her private class price rate. It was £150 for an hour! Indeed, it is common for yoga teachers to charge over £100 or more for an hour long private class… This is in part because teaching group yoga classes pays very little and living is expensive. For the most part, it’s not the yoga teachers making the money but the Yoga Industry.
Nevertheless, such prices are æons apart from the original way yoga was shared. In India prior to colonisation, yoga teaching did not cost anything, except for time. Society was organised differently to our neo-liberal, post-colonial, extractivist culture. It was not so long ago (and probably in some places still) a common practice people of a village to bring offerings of food, gifts or labour out of respect for their local spiritual teacher.
Cultural Appropriation for Corporate Gain
Understandably, some people from a South Asian background have expressed the corporatisation of yoga to be uncomfortable at best, and offensive at worst. Culturally appropriating the ancient religious symbols, art, texts, chants and philosophies of yoga for corporate gain feels deeply at odds with traditional beliefs and values. This is especially true if there is little understanding of the true meaning or original purpose of such artefacts.
Cultural appropriation is often confused with cultural assimilation, or equal cultural exchange. However, what distinguishes cultural appropriation is that it is a form of modern colonialism. We need to be alert to how we might be perpetuating the harmful power dynamics of colonisation in our present time.
When elements from a minority culture (South Asian culture) are utilised by a dominant culture (colonising countries such as the UK, Europe and US) with the ultimate purpose being to create profit that stays within that dominant culture, that is exploitation. This is what has happened in the modern Yoga Industry.
Facing the Our Own Discomfort Head On
It can be really uncomfortable to realise that the effects of colonisation are very real and present in this day and age. It can be difficult to come to terms with the fact that colonising countries have a history of dominating, harming and oppressing other cultures. Even harder to bear is the fact that these harms continue on, in other forms, within the dominant cultures. Racism and unconscious bias has ongoing negative effects on the lives of marginalised people. Many people do not want to face the harsh reality of these truths. As a consequence of our discomfort, it can be tempting to look away and not consider the implications of our actions (or non-action). This subconscious choice to avoid the problem only serves to perpetuate the colonisation, racism and harm. It is time we look at these issues squarely and fairly as best we can.
There are ways of practicing and teaching yoga that are less extreme in their centring of the dominant cultural norms and less exploitative in their business models. If we learn more about the effects of colonisation, racism and oppression, we have a chance to gain awareness about the potential for harm. In this way we can learn what steps we can take to ensure that we are creating a welcoming and equitable space for all. This will help us to bridge divides, reduce harm and avoid the kind of polarisation that brings out the more damaging sides of our human psyche. Most yoga teachers grounded in yoga philosophy will recognise these aims, as the aims of yoga itself. These principles are part of process that moves us all towards a more peaceful world.
Yoga For Planetary Resilience and Human Connection
Yoga is a practice that enables us to stand for truth and justice for all beings. The more (mentally or physically) challenging practices help us to face our own discomfort, to bear with it, learn from it and grow. The philosophy and effects of meditation practices allow us to recognise that we all have a place within us that is divine and worthy of love and respect. These are just the qualities we need to look at our unconscious bias and tendency to centre the dominant cultural norms or ideals.
To Namaste or Not Namaste?
We learned as yoga teachers, that the word namaste means “I bow to you” or “the divine in me, bows to the divine in you.” Apparently, it doesn’t mean that so much in India as this article explains. However, I consciously and respectfully choose to keep saying the word namaste, for me and many of the students who come to classes, it has a meaning that is quite precious. Even though it might be simply a greeting in India it has a lovely energy. A few years ago, while I was in Southern Greece a woman said “namaste kala” to me as I finished packing my supermarket shopping. To me, it felt just as reverential, heartfelt and kind as my preferred parting gesture in yoga class. In this age of polarisation, trolling, shaming and blaming, a simple heartfelt greeting can go a long way to connecting our hearts and remembering our shared humanity.